Interview with a heckler

When Vital Speeches editor David Murray compared heckling to vandalism, a heckler responded in heckling's defense.

"Hecklers are vandals," was the headline of yesterday's post on my personal blog, Writing Boots.

I was taking on Zoe Nicholson, a lifelong political activist who had objected on her Facebook page to the Bernie Sanders campaign's anti-heckling tactics. When Sanders is giving a speech and hecklers start chanting, "Black Lives Matter," Sanders backers are instructed to overwhelm the hecklers by chanting, "We Stand Together."

"Maddening," said Nicholson on Facebook. "All hecklers want is a voice and the issues prioritized. Shouting down is making them voiceless. That is the real message."

Aside from questioning a heckler's right to complain about being heckled back, I questioned—partly in defense of my fine-feathered speechwriting friends who work too hard on speeches to have them shouted down!—the effectiveness of heckling, and whether it's worth the social cost:

At best, it may alert some people to the idea that there are people who think, for instance, that George W. Bush or Barack Obama is a baby killer. But if you didn't know in the first place that people felt that way, you're probably not inclined to read further, because you never were a big reader in the first place.

Mostly, heckling just makes everyone embarrassed and sad, that people feel desperate or disrespectful enough to vandalize a community gathering, and destroy an attempt at communication.

Happily, the heckler Nicholson responded in defense of heckling, writing in part:

I am pleased that you quoted me and perfectly too. I am a real fan of heckling, personally I began it with George Wallace in regards to civil rights and the Vietnam war. My teacher is Alice Paul, who learned it from Emmeline Pankhurst.

To really understand the organic effect of heckling you have to have the mission of pointing out to those in power that they need to prioritize the issues. For example, Senator Sanders was talking about the distribution of wealth and the hecklers wanted him to update his position on Black Lives Matter. It was not, 1) that he is a racist, 2) that his work in the 60's was ignored or 3) redistribution of wealth is not important. And, the fact is—within 2 days his campaign did put out a NEW set of positions on the issues of the day. No matter how it appears—the fact is that it works.

I heckled POTUS on the repeal of DADT. I was chanted down and escorted out by the Secret Service. BUT President Obama prioritized and set a committee in place to investigate the effects on the armed forces should they allow LGB to openly serve. Obviously it was repealed.

It is the work of the militants to break convention. Heckling is a tried and true tool But if you measure it on how the moderates react—it looks like rude immature shouting. However, the approval of the moderates is not the goal. …

BTW—I just read that "Bernie rally tonight in LA opened with a woman giving a speech about BlackLivesMatter. The cheers from the crowd were insane." Well done!

I thanked Nicholson for her thoughtful response and added that "even if I don't necessarily buy your implied direct connection between your heckling and the repeal of DADT," her points were well taken.

Speechwriter—o megaphone for power!—how do you respond? —DM

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